Cleopatra ★★★★

It might be easy to dismiss Cleopatra as a monument to Hollywood’s hubris, which in many ways it is, but it is still a monumental film. For all the focus on its troubled, spendthrift production and a behind-the-scenes romance almost as epic as anything we see on screen, Cleopatra was conceived and produced at a scale scarcely comprehensible today, and it is all there on screen, for four bum-numbing hours.

Cleopatra’s relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony—the former at the height of his powers and with a believable ambition to end the Roman republic and rule as an emperor, and the latter with his greatness increasingly diminished by his dependence on Cleopatra and by Octavian’s political nous—divide the film into two contrasting halves that are rich in intrigue and pathos. The performances of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and particularly Rex Harrison are each epic in their own way, but even they are dwarfed by the scale of the production.

Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome atop a giant sphinx and surrounded by hundreds of dancers and thousands of onlookers is utterly jaw-dropping. It felt like an Olympic opening ceremony, and probably needed as much planning. The sets, make-up and costumes—Elizabeth Taylor has a new elaborate dress and headgear in every scene—make even other epics of the time look like kitchen-sink dramas. It is little wonder that some of the melodrama, particularly towards the end, gets a bit drowned out, but the film does a pretty good job of making the history clear to a layperson.

There is no getting around the fact that Cleopatra is a bloated production in every sense, but I was utterly enthralled, far more than I thought I’d be. Yes, it’s a monument to hubris, but it’s also a monument to a time of vaulting ambition and grand vision that itself feels like ancient history in this era of CGI and green screen. Cleopatra is a fascinating window into two times when people just seemed to dream bigger.

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